Thu, Mar 02, 2017 - Page 6 News List

FEATURE: The rise of Benin’s Very Holy Church leader


A Voodoo devotee performs on a beach in Ouidah, Benin, at the annual Voodoo Festival on Jan. 10.

Photo: AFP

In the Very Holy Church of Jesus Christ of Baname, the 25-year-old founder calls herself God, her business partner is a self-styled pope and devotees pledge to end the reign of the Devil.

Its charismatic theology and clashes with other religions have caused it to be expelled from Benin’s community of churches and repeated scandals keep the sect in the public eye.

The latest episode occurred in January, when five followers suffocated to death after they were told to lock themselves inside sealed rooms with burning incense and pray for deliverance.

However, it seems no amount of bad press can dent the Very Holy Church’s soaring popularity, or eclipse the fire-and-brimstone appeal of its leader.

On special Sundays, thousands of followers climb up a hill in the Zou District of Baname, 130km north of the commercial capital Cotonou, to witness one of the country’s most seductive pastors.

Vicentia Tadagbe Tchranvoukinni, who calls herself “Perfect” and “God’s Holy Spirit,” promises to “drive out demons.”

The round-faced young woman founded the church in 2009. Since then, her influence has grown rapidly across the country.

“Just by walking up this hill, you are delivered and cured of many ailments,” she proclaims on her Web site, which shows videos of her in a cassock and her signature cherry-red cloche hat addressing cheering crowds.

Her story is a take on the immaculate conception: Tchranvoukinni claims she fell from the sky in northern Benin and was found by a Fulani shepherd in the bush.

West Africa is no stranger to larger-than-life pastors and mega-churches, and Benin itself is a tumultuous hub of mystical religions and animism.

However, despite her cherubic appearance, Tchranvoukinni stands apart for her vitriolic condemnation of other beliefs — notably Voodoo, which is an official religion in Benin.

Critics accuse her of fanning hatred between normally peaceful coexisting communities of different faiths.

On Jan. 8, violent clashes broke out between her followers and residents in the southern town of Djime, who said they “insulted and offended” traditional leaders during an “evangelization mission,” one local official said.

Local media said two people were killed, several others were injured and a number of vehicles were torched.

There was no official death toll, but the Beninese government said it regretted the “loss of life.”

According to daily newspaper La Nouvelle Tribune, the “warriors of the Church of Baname” came dressed in gray, armed with guns, machetes and clubs.

It was not the first time church followers had turned violent.

In 2014, clashes broke out at one of its rallies in Cotonou after youths from the Kpondehou area refused to leave their sports field. Several people were seriously injured.

Violence broke out again the following year in the central town of Save between church devotees and Roman Catholics.

Tchranvoukinni started the church after meeting a Catholic priest, Mathias Vigan, from the parish of Sainte-Odile-de-Baname in 2009.

“Perfect” was not yet 20 and had come to be exorcised, but it was the young woman who captivated the man of the cloth, whom she would later install as “Pope Christopher XVIII.”

The religious odd couple built up their own congregation and to the chagrin of the Catholic church, Vigan started wearing all-white outfits similar to papal regalia — ornate miter and all.

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